We're almost at the end of 2016, which means it's time to look back at the new technologies that have come to the world of the smartphone this year...
For every year’s worth of new smartphones and tablets, a laundry list of innovative new spec sheet features come along for the ride. Some seem like gimmicks, some establish themselves as must-have staples, but whatever happens you can’t stop the march of mobile progress.
To prove it, we’ve been looking back through the year’s biggest releases, stripping each phone down to its core to reveal the hot newness that each one brought to our pockets. These are 2016’s biggest innovations in mobile…
As seen on: LG G5, Moto Z
The modules are coming! The modules are coming! The modules are… Here? Despite Google’s long-awaited Project Ara modular phone biting the dust before release, both LG and Motorola managed to release phones this year with modular elements.
The LG G5 boast attachments like speakers and extra battery packs that you can swap out from the bottom, while the Moto Z range opts for a magnetic back plate that allows you to click different modular add-ons onto its rear without turning the phone off. Will modularity be a long term addition or a flash in the pan? Only time will tell.
As seen on: Huawei P9, iPhone 7 Plus, LG G5
Ok, so HTC and others have made handsets with dual camera setups in the past, but this year the tech really matured and made a proper case for itself. In the Huawei P9, one cam is used to capture colour and the other black and white, with the phone’s software able to combine the two for extra clarity. The iPhone 7 Plus’ pair of snappers are used both to capture depth of field information, and to allow for a really powerful 2x zoom.
And on the LG G5? Those two cams let you switch between narrow and wide angle lenses, depending on whether you’re shooting something up close or trying to capture a whole room.
As seen on: iPhone 7
Not content with simply employing the same old Bluetooth standard that every other phone manufacturer uses, Apple’s gone and invented a new one specifically for its Air Pod headphones and the iPhone 7.
The W1 chip, found in both the phone and the Pods, allows for a strong, dedicated signal, with pairing that switches on and off in a snap whenever you lift the lid on the Air Pods’ carrying case. Fingers crossed we’ll see more cool uses for the W1 chip in future.
As seen on: Microsoft Lumia 950
Are we nearing a time in which you can leave your laptop at home and head out with just your smartphone? Microsoft thinks so. ‘Continuum’ is the name for the company’s big bet on convergence, where plugging your phone into a monitor, keyboard and mouse will see it output the desktop version of Windows 10 on the big screen.
Launched at the very tail of end last year but maturing this year with handsets like the HP Elite X3, the Lumia 950 and 950 XL were the first to carry this feature, making Windows 10 the first true multi-use operating system.
As seen on: Google Pixel
Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL, the first to be designed and built by the company in-house, are a sign of things to come from Android in the future. And that’s great news, because if this first release of the fully-integrated Android Assistant is anything to go by, future phones are going to be crazy smart. For those unsure, Google Assistant is the new and improved version of the voice activated ‘Ok Google’ and Now on Tap features, now all baked into one button press.
You can talk to the assistant via text chat if you like – asking it questions and letting it help you get your day organised – meaning you don’t always have to use your voice. Expect big things.
As seen on: Xiaomi Mii Mix
Xiaomi is huge in its native China, and with good reason: the company is known for great design, top specs and low prices. But what’s really impressed the tech experts this year is the company’s Mii Mix, a late entry in the year that completely does away with bezels around the display.
The result is a truly edge-to-edge beauty that maximises on screen estate without impacting on the overall size of the phone. More of this next year, please.
As seen on: (The late) Samsung Galaxy Note 7
The ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 did leave us with one cool bit of new tech: iris scanning security. The feature debuted in the Note, but it’s more than likely to make a continued appearance in 2017’s Galaxy handsets and beyond, too. So what is it? Well, if you like your phones safe, you won’t get much safer than using the unique pattern of your eyes to unlock your phone.
Your Irises are inherently more secure biometric keys than your fingerprints thanks to their sheer variety and complexity, but they’re also potentially handier in real world situations – you don’t need to be holding your phone for it to work, for instance, and you can also complete an iris scan while wearing gloves or when your hands are wet. Will the tech completely replace fingerprint readers on phones? Watch this space to see if the eyes have it.
More smartphone tech… Click here to find out what TechRadar’s mobile guru Gareth Beavis thinks is the best phone of the year.